Thursday, September 27, 2018

Estonian History + Theatre = Disaster

The following article appears in Estonian cultural magazine Sirp.
Estonian readers can view it here in their beautiful language:


Estonian History + Theatre = Disaster
an outsider view of DRAAMA 2018

I went into the 2018 DRAAMA festival as an idiot, knowing almost nothing about Estonian history, theatre, people, and culture. The experience was (therefore) full of surprises: the higher-than-expected cost of living, the local politeness, a 10pm alcohol-purchasing limit… at every street corner of Tartu I was met with something I didn’t expect. These surprises could be very good, such as experiencing a sauna on the Emajõgi, or hearing for the first time the quiet beauty of the sung Estonian language. They could also be, well, not-so-positive. And the Estonia 100 theatre series ‘Tale of the Century’ – a set of 13 works, each addressing one decade of the Estonian Republic’s history – threw up plenty of the latter. Commissioned 5 years ago, these projects made up the bulk of the English-language programme of this year’s DRAAMA, and provided many discussion points for members of the Baltic Forum (such as myself) who came from the Baltics and beyond to get a sense of Estonian theatre practice.

The decision to programme shows expressly to celebrate the founding of Estonian Independence must itself be called into question. Many artists seemed to grapple with their new function as advocates of Estonian identity, creating works that were, at best, confused by the brief, and at worst flirted with something close to nationalism. All the while, aesthetic experimentation seemed to take a seat in the second row. The latest work from NO99, NO34 Revolution, successfully continued (or re-started) the company’s experiments with movement and innovative dramaturgies, taking the transformative period of the 1910s as a counterpoint to our cynical perspective on revolution today. The opera Estonian History: A Nation Born of Shock (Estonian National Opera and Kanuti Gildi SAAL) managed to develop some new aesthetic proposals from the clash of its form and the extensive historical research (from the 13-plus members of the research team). The end result was an unexpected experiment that produced its own type of formal shock, largely through the use of speech, comedy, and silence. 

 NO99's NO34 Revolution. Photo: Tiit Ojasoo

Several shows in the programme seemed to understand the magnitude of historical representation to mean the production of large-scale works. While notable for their ambition, shows such as BB at Night (Von Krahl Theatre and Tartu New Theatre) and Before Us, the Deluge (NUKU and Vaba Lava) seemed to overcompensate, generating huge, impressive, production-heavy shows which might be more suited to national celebrations in Russia or China. In both cases, the shows themselves achieved their goals – creating types of ‘total theatre’ in the form of multi-faceted and comprehensive theatre texts. However, they left little in the way of openness, and, on both counts, almost no room for interpretation. In the worst cases, the brief of representing a whole decade of a nation brought with it a kind of anti-experimental attitude, such as in The Mistress of the Raven’s Stone (Endla Theatre and Kuressaare City Theatre) – again an entirely successful show, it just seemed to be written in the late 19th century, even as it addressed the period of the 1950s.

The exception to this aesthetic trend is Journeys: Promised Land (Soltumatu Tantsu Lava) – a small show in production, but one that sticks out for the experimental nature of its approach. Rather than attempt to deal with the entire 1920s, performer Kadri Noormets addresses a specific as a metaphor for the whole: an Estonian migration event to Brazil. The performance doesn’t trade in massive production values, dealing instead in exchange and negotiation with the audience: its currency is nothing less than your own agency as spectator. In this, the performance goes into a brave new world, departing from the historical roots of the chosen frame, and reflecting on migration as a particular mode of human (Estonian) experience. Noormets channels the improvisational energy necessary to migrating – encountering, as it does, the unknown – into a kind of live decision-making and joint exploration with the audience. The result could be seen to generalise the source event, but it instead works to magnify its material through a process of abstraction, bringing us closer to its subject through radical human connection than a historical analysis ever could.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Notaufnahme - Hospitali

Going to Vierte Welt (which means '4th World' in German) is really like stepping into another dimension - it's a place where theatre absolutely should not exist. For one, there are these 4 giant pillars in the centre of the room, presumably needed to support the goliathic apartment building in which the theatre is housed, and guaranteed to block the sightlines of even the most flexible giraffe. The room has the feeling of an office-block, with major light and sound bleed coming from the raucous, inescapable Kotbusser Tor outside.

It's not a coincidence that I've never seen anything to really blow me away in Vierte Welt. It's that kind of space, too connected with reality to offer the transformative, escapist experience people (myself included) have come to expect from theatre in the West, based in the illusions offered by the Ancient Greeks.

The design of Notaufnahme - Hospitali (primavera*maas) does just about as good a job as any show I've seen at dealing thoroughly with the space. The action - centred around a Berlin artist from Tanzania with mental illness - is supplemented by pre-recorded screens which approximate the action (rather like looking at a poorly lip-synced animation, but very effective). We follow the central character through his struggles with the German medical system, as in a maze of bureaucracy - mirrored by the scrawled wallpaper depicting a city skyline - and a fragmented, confused story emerges of the difficulties in addressing mental illness.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

DRAAMA Festival Day 7: The Future According to Russians Living in Estonia, and Language

The last day of the festival saw a public critical discussion about the shows we saw in the festival which, being in English, was mainly focused on those shows which were part of the 100 Years of Estonia centenary celebrations. The conversation remained typically polite but was, at times, fiercely contested. Particular attention was paid to national identity, with several responses indicating a kind of 'trap of representation' occurring within the works that were part of the celebrations, which were forced to engage national identity even though their work may sit uncomfortably in this frame. The projects were all initiated 5 years ago (apparently pairing smaller and larger companies for collaboration via a random ballot system - which seems far too democratic to me), and over this period the conversation around nation states has also shifted considerably, to the point where the celebrations of the Estonian republic are occurring in a Europe which increasingly heads down a nationalist, and in some cases, extreme nationalist path.

From colleagues in Lithuania and Latvia, it was expressed that Estonian theatre and culture more generally seems to have thoroughly processed its atrocious past, and be well on the way to developing new futures: "Your suffering is already passed" as Lithuanian dramaturg and critic Monika Jasinskaite stated. This is relative of course - for me it was interesting that national identity was deemed an important project at all, especially one worthy of such huge public investment in culture. The strange nature of some of the collaborations was commented on by a colleague from Nigeria, Michael Anyawu, who proposed that they were quite strange and imbalanced. The absence of Baltic German histories was noted by another colleague, London-based academic Mischa Twitchin, who suggested there was a total erasure of history between 1914 and 1939. The general popular appeal was noted by many critics as a shortcoming of the festival, in that it meant a forgoing of experimentation, especially in light of the 100 years of Estonian Independence celebrations. A country is only as independent as its artists, perhaps.

Two performances to write about today (a little later than I should be writing, but hey, it takes me a while to get home from Estonia). The first, To Come/Not to Come. Estonia in 100 Years from Estonia's Tallinn-based Russian Theatre, is a gamified choose your own adventure into the future. The second, Journeys. Songs of Terra Mariana is a juxtaposition of operatic monologue and choreography eximining the period of the 1920s, and forms a (very) loose pairing with Kadri Noormets work on the opening day of the festival, Journeys. Promised Land.

To Come/Not to Come. Estonia in 100 Years

Estonia has a quite large Ethnic Russian population - about 25% of people speak Russian as a first language and 66% speak the language. In recent history, this has not been a recipe for a very stable relationship with Russia, whose territorial incursions on the basis of ethnicity have included South Ossatia, Crimea, and, more recently and continuing, the Donetsk region of Ukraine (although the state still claims to be hands-off on that one, it made the same statements about Crimea... but was at very least an extremely enthusiastic participant). Estonia seems different, with its ethnic Russian population forming a respected and valuable contribution to cultural life, even if Russian language is declining in popularity among the rest of the country.

The Russian Theatre's contribution to the festival takes a fairly unique voting system (unfortunately all in Russian) to control the narrative, which can be voted on live through visiting a website. Audience vote their preferred future, with the actors playing out that scenario for a future Estonia. The scenarios themselves are repetitive in format, beginning almost unanimously with a projected news broadcast (Viktor Marvin) from a futuristic TV host, who explains the situation that was the result of the vote. Then there's a dinner party, where different beverages are served and certain protocols and rituals take place. Then there's a celebration or event, which takes the form of musical spectacle.

 Photo: Gabriela Liivamägi

The scenarios follow familiar themes with regard to speculations about the future: environmental crisis (where humans attach themselves to plants in space suits to keep their oxygen), technological utopian (where we develop an artificial sun to make the temperature always comfortable), and multiculturalism (where the news broadcaster switches languages between sentences). One scenario has humans with both sets of genitals. It's not supposed to be particularly imaginative, just following different threads of today - and the important thing is that these scenarios have a connection with discourses of the present day.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

DRAAMA Festival Day 6: Pensioner Exploitation and Cyborgs

The sun rises on the last day of DRAAMA. Some 40 shows have been staged over the past week, and by the end of tonight your correspondent will have seen a mere 16, and written on a (mere?) 13. That's only about a quarter of the program, and as I stated in the beginning, it's almost all the stuff that is translated or performed in English. These are inevitably the bigger works - such that my perception of the festival is inevitably, frustratingly skewed, towards the larger, bigger budget works that make up the 'Tale of the Century' 100 years celebrations of the Estonian republic.

All of which to say - there are other shows here - which would warrant my attention, perhaps even more than those I actually had the chance to see. Nevertheless, I am not stupid enough to criticise the festival for this - there are a lot of text-based works here, and making a single live translation of a theatre work takes a huge amount of labour, which has been done with precision and professionalism by dramaturgs and staff of the festival here. There has been many moments when I've been sitting in an audience with the headphones on, marveling at a twist in the language, or a measured piece of delivery from a reader. The synchronicity required, the delicacy, and the complicity are an uncelebrated part of theatre art.

Over the course of the week I have grown to love Tartu, and that was never clearer than my walk to yesterday's conference venue. Taking a slightly roundabout route (which left me pretty late actually) I found myself wandering through a park and stumbling across the ruins of Tartu Cathedral, perched on the hilltop of Toomemägi Park. With no time to inspect, I was forced just to glimpse briefly in surprise - an apt metaphor for my time here, which has been only the most superficial sample of Tartuian and Estonian existence.

The purpose of the International Conference on Baltic Drama was an exchange of ideas between Baltic countries, and this was divided into themes of National Identity, Comedy, and Drama Export, each presented by a panel of three speakers. Not all of the categories were followed thoroughly, although the Drama Export produced a lively debate over whether exporting of theatre should even be an objective at all - inevitably resulting in some staunch defense of theatre's old export systems of the playwright, the translation, and the tour. My (naive) feeling is that the context of the Baltic region and potential partnerships calls for new methods, strategies and show, but, like much that is old, the systems of commodification can always be re-invoked at the drop of a hat. People are always mighty impressed when your play is read overseas, after all.

Along with the conference, I saw 2 shows on day 6 - the strangely-written Million Dollar View and the impressive Beatrice. Both sat in a strange place for me, achieving what they set out to do, but with that thing leaving me somehow unsatisfied, like Tartu's indecisive September weather.

Million Dollar View

A common form of thievery is to get old people to sign away their properties without full consent. It's a brutal practice, taking advantage of a vulnerable person for personal profit, and it goes largely undocumented. Mostly, it's the families of the person themselves, who effectively seize property from dying 'loved ones' under the guise of acting in their best interests. Sometimes, though, it's an outsider, normally posing as an authority or figure of trust, who deludes the person into signing something they would never willingly sign. This doesn't just happen with property and it's not only criminal - old people's non-consensual spending represents an important part of the Australian economy, for example, where in particular gambling machines lead to financial tragedy in many Australian families.

Million Dollar View is a social drama by Paavo Piik that approaches this subject directly, but never quite explores the possible tragedy of the situation. Uncle Ants (Egon Nuter) is an aging pensioner in a poorly-maintained property in the city centre. His family come to visit him, but only to 'check on his health' - meaning, they are waiting for him to die. The play begins with the news that they have achieved permission to develop the site of the land from the city council, joyous to the family, but irrelevant to Ants, who has no plans to move anywhere. Appearing to take sympathy with him, Pilleriin (Saara Nüganen), the girlfriend of the son of the family Erki (Märt Pius), Pilleriin, returns to do him some favours, and to "take care of him a little". Only too willing to have beautiful, young help around, Ants shares stories of his time as a ballet teacher, and promotes his newly-found physical capabilities. The two grow close over the coming weeks, and when Pilleriin asks Ants to sign a document, he doesn't think twice about it. Meanwhile, the ghost of his wife comes back to haunt Ants, who may or may not be becoming demented.

Photo: Siim Vahur

The family have a meeting with the local city Councillor, who informs them that they would be free to sell the property - if only it were in their uncle's name. Checking the records, they find that the property has been gifted to someone. Furious, they approach Pilleriin, and slowly discover the betrayal. Visited by the ghost of his dead brother, Ants undergoes a dementia test, brought by the family to prove that he was unfit to sign. He passes, but soon learns of the true character of Pilleriin when another pensioner turns up to live in his new home.

Friday, September 7, 2018

DRAAMA Festival Day 5: Satire! and Angst

It's Day 5, and by now the festival is starting to drag its way towards the inevitable finish line. The delegates of the Baltic Forum have settled into their daily routines, and we go to the theatre with a very 'once more unto the breach, dear friends' sort of attitude. Not that it's a chore, exactly, just that watching show after show is kind of exhausting. Being in a theatre audience is also a labour - and nothing makes you more conscious of this than watching 4-5 hours of theatre each day. That's a third of waking hours.

Tomorrow is Conference Day, in which delegates will present papers to each other and engage in critical discussion. So, your correspondent will limit himself (really this time) to a few comments about the two shows he caught today. One of these, The Swallows of Fatherland, was a biting satire with its false teeth removed, and the other To Touch the Moon, a blending of drama and choreography that felt like a soap opera on stage - some severely restricted comments on the latter below.

The Swallows of Fatherland

Oh, the pains of the 'country town'. All who grew up in rural areas know it well - the gossip, the xenophobia, the horrible, horrible restrictions placed on each other. The painful consensus, tragically miscalculated at times, painfully real at others, sometimes simply naively brilliant. It's a rich source of satire, not only because it is so laughable to an elitist, cultured, urban perspective to which theatre normally panders, but because it shows the perspective of the accusers for what it really is - not necessarily more or less legitimate.

The Swallows of Fatherland has a perfect satirical premise (although it's referred to as farce in the publicity material) - the drama club of a rural Estonian town stage a play about the War of Independence, to celebrate the 100 year anniversary. There's just one 'problem': they're all women! (Cue laughter). Some colleagues stayed away based on this premise, but I bravely soldiered on, and as I stepped into the rural-town-hall surrounds of Tartu's Student Club, I expected a connection to the most cringe-worthy aspects of my rural Australian upbringing.

Photo:Slim Vahur

In this sense, I was not disappointed. The play, written by Estonian favourite Andrus Kivirähk, is a sharp observation of Estonian small-town life. Starting with a few miserable, plonky, piano chords, aged member of the Northern Lights Drama club, Anu (devilish Ester Pajusoo), wanders onto stage, sitting down to knit. In comes Merike (Marta Laan), in a fit of rage, and launches into a detailed diatribe about how the toilet is broken again, and when will it be truly fixed, and if that bloody mayor would only do his job rather than lining his pockets in Greece etc. All lines of argument which are painfully familiar. As Sveta (Maria Klenskaja) enters, the discussion turns to the correct or incorrect attire for saunas (which Estonians are quite interested in, I'm told), and who is the correct sort of actor to play the lead in Madam Butterfly. The scene is set for the group's writer/director Pilvi (Ülle Kaljuste) to enter and proclaim that she has written their new play about the war of independence, and they won't be able to play in it - to much protests ("I could play a young man! I've even played a rabbit, and they're much smaller"). It becomes a game of trying to get the village men to participate, and when Toivo (Taavi Teplenkov) finally comes to fix the toilet, he's the first victim to this desperate circle of biddies.

DRAAMA Festival Day 4: Apartment Building Floods

Ah, that familiar feeling when you are behind on the writing. As shows accumulate, waiting to be written about, time marches on, and new shows inevitably begin. And so on, and so on, proceeding - as Kafka might say - into deepest darkness.

Nevertheless, here I sit on Day 4, with just a lazy single show to write about today, the enchanting Before Us, The Deluge. The extended chaos of yesterday's Hippie Revolution was just too much for me - I appreciated the intent to innovate on a level of dramaturgical confusion, putting as many fight scenes, 70s songs, and unexplained events into a single 2-hour period as possible, but my brain just wasn't up to it. Maybe I am not cut out to be a flower child, after all.

Meanwhile, our hosts in Tartu tick along. The city is slowly unraveling itself to me - from its initial appearance as a lump of concrete in the form of H&M, Subway, and other shopping extravaganzas that plague the centre of Europe's cities, I have been quietly discovering some of the more secret facets - not without the help of friends and strangers alike. The wooden houses are a particular feature - originally built to house workers, today they stand as relatively energy-inefficient relics of Estonia's past (though possibly also pointing to the future, today Estonia is apparently the largest exporter of wooden houses in the EU).

Before Us, The Deluge

As well as his neoliberalising and imperialist military instincts, Ronald Regan was also known for having a comedic disposition, especially in relation to the Societ Union. One joke he tells features in Before Us, The Deluge. After some introductory notes that these are jokes told by people within the Soviet Union, who "have a great sense of humour but are very cynical about their systems", Regan relates that a man is putting down a deposit for a car, and being told to return for it in 10 years. "Morning, or afternoon?" The man asks. "What difference does it make?" the seller replies. The man says "Well, the plumber is coming in the afternoon".

"Ha. Ha. Ha." comes the slow, sarcastic reply from Anti Kobin, one third of the protagonists of Before Us, The Deluge - a sickly-sweet and darkly comic look at that microcosm of Soviet life: the apartment building. The stories centre around a particular apartment block, in Õismäe, a suburb of Tallinn, where tenants live out their tiny dramas on a never-changing landscape of malfunctioning amenities, apartment shifting, and tragicomedic incidents (incidentally, if you ever wanted an example of the astonishing urban planning projects of the Soviet Union, an image search of Õismäe is a good place to start). Here, artists trade apartments for a better view but no hot water, young girls imagine Swan lake is being sung to them by the radiator, and punk bands rehearse to the tune of noise complaints.

Photo: Siim Vahur

Before Us, The Deluge holds a mirror up to these events, using the apartment building as a metaphor for Estonian life in the 1980s. The stories of three protagonists are related in all their tragicomic detail. Anti Kobin begins, telling of his artist parents and their incompatibilities with Soviet life, trying to move their grand piano without the help of a maintenance lift, rendered faulty through its miscommunication of Russian and Finnish parts, and the fact that the Russian parts "weren't made for elevators anyway". Liivika Hanstin takes over with her narrative of trying to become a ballerina, having seen a production of Swan Lake on a Finnish TV station. Finally, Mihkel Tikerpalu provides an account of his ascent to punk status, joining the others in putting safety pins in their ears and rehearsing in their apartments, much to the chagrin of neighbours.

DRAAMA Festival Day 3: Back to where it all began

Day 3 was a heavy day. For one thing, the clouds hang over Tartu as though at any moment they might revolt from their summer codes of conduct and disturb the peace. There's a kind of hesitant energy, as well, with the university semester having begun but not yet in the full swing. Tartu is most famous as a university town - along with Saint Petersburg and Berlin, once forming part of a coalition of highest-quality learning institutions. Today, it's still one of the few in the Baltic universities to offer English-language degrees (no Russian, apparently).

Day 3 saw two heavy shows, the first - The Mistress of the Raven's Stone - is a new play that is so classical it made me think it was written in the 1850s, about events in 1950s Estonia. The second, dealing with the 1960s, is an opera called Estonian History: A Nation born of Shock,  and tells the story of Estonia from its beginnings, apparently with the meteor/meteorite Kaali in about 1500 BC. Both shows are part of the 'Tale of the Century' series, which make up a majority of the English language programming. Apologies to the honest work from the artists behind the late-night Cabaret Siberia - a dark cabaret that stylistically throws back to the traditions of the form. My Estonian language is just not good enough yet.

The Mistress of the Raven's Stone

'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is an idiom that applies in certain, mainly conservative theatre contexts. Why stray far from the dependable structures of Ibsen and Chekhov? They were the masters of the craft, the unassailable geniuses - right? We should just be making theatre that works, for god's sake, not all of this experimentation!

Not only is such a sentiment totally against the ethos of this writing platform, including the principles for theatre art as an entire practice, and the entire reason for making theatre in the first place - it's also bound to kill the art form itself, which is hindered, and not helped, by lack of experimentation. Thereby, as a general rule, I am unlikely to support something which engages in only storytelling, and makes no attempt to advance the craft.

Still, I can appreciate when something is 'good', in the way that I don't like - I don't like, let's say diamonds, but I am totally willing to put principle aside for a moment, and admire a well-constructed one. And The Mistress of the Raven's Stone is a good play. Everything in it works - from the drawing room set, to the typecasting, to the moments of phantasm. The plot, centred around 1950s Estonia and the testing occupation of the Soviet Union, functions perfectly, characters coming in to advance the plot, making sudden revelations that totally change the previous assumptions, burying historical detail and nostalgia flawlessly inside speech. There are turning points in the appropriate places, a cliffhanger introduction of a new character at the end of the fist act (no less than a Bogeyman!) and a quasi-political discussion about social obligations under an oppressive regime. All the ingredients are there, tastefully arranged.

Foto: Siim Vahur

Ilse (Lauli Otsar) dreams of the times before the Soviet Union, where you could get proper toothpaste, material for sewing wedding dresses, and dish recipes. Their collective farm has fallen on hard times, with not enough labourers left to grow potatoes. It's left to her fiancée Heino (Markus Habakukk) to remind her of the benefits of the Soviet project, including hydroelectric plants, trolly-buses, and apartments - "These kind of memories only get in the way". Enter the local lieutenant Eduard (Märt Avandi) to check on them, explaining during a man-off with Heino that "Sitting by the stove and criticising the authorities is easy". As he leaves, we first experience the wondrous powers of the Ravenstone, a mysterious artifact left to Ilse by her father (deported by Eduard, for which he is deeply sorry) which apparently has the power to commit small supernatural acts, such as preventing Eduard from finding the door to exit. Aunt Berta (Piret Rauk) comes in to offer practical wisdom ("Sometimes it's good that there are some things in the world we can't change") and the local mayor Harald (Ago Anderson) drops in to ask Ilse to paint a portrait of Stalin, and to borrow the Ravenstone to save the harvest. Act 1 closes with the sudden arrival of a wounded Bogeyman (Lauri Kink, doing that role where you wait the entire first act for your big reveal, then take a break for interval), providing the cliffhanger moment spurring the second act.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

DRAAMA Festival Day 2: Brecht and Brecht

Some down-time for your correspondent today, as the two performances were so heavy on information that I could not - even with very well-executed live translation - glean a good reading of either. Both were undoubtedly 'good' performances, I was either too exhausted from the day before, or the performances themselves simply required too much of a mental leap for me. I will do my best to sketch out the directions below.

Meanwhile, the festival ticks on. It seems I've join a tight crew: each year, a delegation from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia visit the national festival of one of the three countries. This year, it's Estonia's turn, so I'm accompanied by 2 national delegations from the institutions of their respective countries. For many, it's not their first time doing this - in one case, a representative has been coming here for 12 of the 18 years of the festival's existence.

All of which means I am very much an outsider, which of course makes me feel a lot more comfortable. Perfect dialectics there.

Tuesday was a day of physical journey if not mental, containing tours to the edge of Tartu and then, remarkably, to the north of the country by train.

Sirk's Estonia

The first journey of the day took us out to Estonia's impressive National Museum, built on the grounds of the former Soviet bombing airfield called Raadi. Keen readers will notice that I mentioned this in the first post - it was one place that I planned to visit when I was here. (The other was a far-fetched aspiration to visit Lahemaa National Park, which, although I didn't quite get there yesterday, I came surprisingly close in the second performance). So, I suppose, thanks to DRAAMA festival for organising my Estonian bucket list.

Sirk's Estonia begins with a site-specific piece, the foyer of the museum used to host a group of actors (Labyrinth Theatre Group G9) walking slowly towards the doorway, which slowly fills with smoke. As they walk, they strip off clothes, eventually disappearing into the smoke. I didn't make much of this - especially since the entire second half is a proscenium-arch Brechtian performance with apparently no connection to the opening. Further, some logistics were required to subsequently equip the (many) audience members requiring audio translation, check everyone's tickets, and physically relocate them to the theatre in the museum's basement. Some of these issues are undoubtedly connected with the transfer of the piece - which originally existed in the Estonian National Library in Tallinn, and contained a slightly different prefix.
The staging of the play is a Brechtian comedy  by VAT Theatre, which presents an alternative history of Estonia in the 1930s. The play is set in a present-day celebration of Estonian director (fictional) Ernst Meel, which has initiated a play written by a famous playwright (Ago Soots). However, a young upstart writer (Meelis Pödersoo) proposes an alternative play: one centred on the life of fascist revolutionary leader Artur Sirks (also played by Pödersoo) and his attempts to overthrow the Estonian government with the right-wing Vaps movement.

Photo: Siim Vahur

It's an approach that lets the writers (Aare Toikka and Mihkel Seeder) talk about 1930s Estonia, while's still reflecting from today's perspective. The Brechtian trimmings offer an access point to history that's educational, as does the comedic style. There are some nice lines, dripping with so much sarcasm that they could have come from the mouth of Brecht ("It's not a comedy, it's a historical drama" or "The Great Show is the foundation of Estonian national culture") as well as some which probably wouldn't ("Are there any female characters?"). The addition of the Woman's Choir of the National Library of Estonia, who assemble at the back of the theatre and sing responses to the action (sometimes in sweet harmony, and sometimes atonally), completes this play's credentials as the most Brechtian thing that has ever Brechted. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

DRAAMA Festival, Day 1: Revolution and Complicity

It's Day 1 of the festival, and already some of the awkwardness of the initiation is fading away. Having arrived at 2am at the hostel, only to find that some of my co-passengers on the late bus from Riga were also attending the conference, I woke up a mess - but happily anticipating the beginnings of the festival in earnest that evening.

This is the 18th rendition of DRAAMA festival. As far as I can tell, it's always had an institutional bend - mostly, it seems, the year's best Estonian works come to Tartu to be seen by whoever is interested in seeing famous work. This, from my experience, is not quite as cynical as it sounds - versions of this exist across Europe and abroad, and there are regional programmers who just don't have time or resources to visit Tallinn every second Tuesday to see the latest hot show, so having everything in one place can be very helpful. Audiences who might simply not have time or geographic location to see the shows they want to see can find them all in the one place.

In this case, the 100th year anniversary of the Republic of Estonia brings with it mixed blessings. On one hand, a solid English-language program consists of 13 shows, either performed in English or in translation. On the other hand, all of the shows, with I think a single exception, have solid institutional backing - so don't expect work with too much independence.

Two outstanding performances from Day 1 followed the afternoon welcoming formalities, and each of them were significant in their own way. In the small theatre of Tartu's giant Theatre Vanemuine, NO99's NO34 Revolution is a tightly choreographed work contemplating the impossibility of revolution and its consequences. Performed in the Harbour Theatre in Tartu's riverfront, Kadri Noormets's Journeys. Promised Land is either an incredible experiment in complicity, or I have totally lost any objectivity in a haze of 'audience flirtation': I'll let you decide. Will from Tartu New Theatre was unfortunately cancelled, and thus marks the only casualty today.

NO34 Revolution

Tallinn-based NO99 opens the festival, tasked with responding to Estonia in the 1910s. Their choice to focus on the concept of revolution makes sense, this being a time for significant revolution in the Russian Empire, as well as the Estonian War of Independence and a generally significant period of upheaval in the region.

We enter the theatre to a unison of gongs, played by the actors wearing red robes. Slowly, this gives way to a choreographed spinning - a kind of giddy spin that Maria in the Sound of Music would be proud of. Its a fairly astonishing act of discipline and stamina, the cast keep their formation for a good 10 minutes of stage time, accompanied by subtle changes in the harpsichord soundtrack (Jacob Juhkam).

Photo: Tiit Ojasoo

The spinning of the opening functions in multiple ways. Firstly, it makes a nice joke about Revolution - this having a double meaning in English, of 'circle' - mocking our assumption that there are some politics involved. 'You thought we meant overthrowing government? Really, we just meant to twirl'. That may seem like a bad joke, but it goes directly to the contention of NO34 Revolution - the superfluity and impossibility of revolution as a concept today. In this context, the gesture of spinning becomes both an accusation and an expression of disappointment.

Monday, September 3, 2018

DRAAMA Theatre Festival, Tartu, Estonia

Confession: Estonian theatre is not an area I'm particularly well-read in. Second confession: Nor is Estonia generally, in fact. Nor any of the Baltic countries, which seem to have their own EU, sandwiched between Russia, Poland, and Scandinavia. What I know of the country I know from friends, or the occasional traveler's tales. Sometimes, small oddities appear in relation to the activities of the Soviet Union - for example, the significant bomber base at Raadi or the secret submarine research facility in Lahemaa National Park (not quite akin to the military dolphin training facility in Simferepol, but at least a little curious).

One of the festival venues, 'Sisevete Saatkond', is also Estonia's oldest riverboat (a century old, in fact).

Nevertheless, here I am in Tartu, Estonia's 'second city', preparing to spend the week writing about Estonian and Baltic theatre as part of the annual DRAAMA festival. Like many other second cities, Tartu has a reputation for being quietly superior to its bigger sister (the capital, Tallinn) with a huge University population (about 20% of the city) and a significant amount of government installations. Sure enough, Tartu is filled with cultural institutions, and with a population of only 100,000, walking around the city's monolithic structures, one feels there must be one for every 1000 citizens.